Claire Messud’s impatience with an interviewer from Publishers Weekly who asked it she’d want to be friends with her own main character caused a stir, but nowhere more so than at Slate, where Katie Roiphe attributed Messud’s impatience to a “certain prickliness on the part of women writers” which is “currently fashionable.”
First Messud’s outburst, which has gone “viral” (as the saying has it). She had just finished describing Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, her fifth novel, as middle-aged, single, and angry. “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Annasue McCleave Wilson, the interviewer for PW innocently asks. Messud explodes:
Now, I’ve been an admirer of Messud for a while. Her 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children, I wrote in Commentary, “is probably the best novel to come out of September 11.” So I’ll acknowledge that I was predisposed to applaud Messud’s response. And what is more, Messud says in far fewer words, far more memorably, what I had struggled to say about the real existence of fictional characters earlier in the year (“To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel”).
At all events, what I heard in Messud’s outburst was a working novelist, a species whom, in its most powerful form, displays the highly developed instincts of a fearsome literary critic. What I heard was a serious writer viciously attacking a serious problem of literature.
But that’s not what Katie Roiphe heard. What Katie Roiphe heard was gender. In her opening sentence, she categorized Messud’s outburst as the “latest fracas over literary sexism.” She allowed that Messud “does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist,” but the question about befriending literary characters is implicitly sexist—Messud herself implies it is. How? By “listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro ‘for that matter’ to make it clear that her list had been about men).” Then, bored with the “fracas,” and having satisfied herself that she knows Messud’s mind, Roiphe hurries on to talk about her own literary experience.
Roiphe’s interpretation of Messud’s response was so distant from mine, so foreign to it, that I was thunderstruck. Belonging to a different sex and an older generation (Messud and Roiphe are fourteen and sixteen years younger than I), I concluded that I was merely demonstrating, once again, how out of step I am. Rereading the whole PW interview with a renewed attention to gender, I found that it had been Messud who first introduced its note. After naming the fiction about which she is passionate (Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Beckett, Camus, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, Thomas Bernhard), she went on to say:
Everything else about her language suggests that Messud agrees. As a writer, she is concerned with illuminating, she says, a “particular human experience.” The question at the heart of her fiction is “how then must we live?” And this question can “only be addressed in the individual, not in the general.” Her narrator Nora is an angry woman, but she is also single and approaching middle age, and
My point is not to scold Katie Roiphe, even if I believe the implication of sexism that she finds in the interview question that so angered Claire Messud is only the anger over sexism Roiphe herself brings to many literary encounters. If I am right about Messud’s motivation, however, it means that she is just as badly out of step as am I—that putting literary problems before gender is not the first instinct of her generation, nor of the literary present.
Update: Corey Robin blasts Katie Roiphe for being “inattentive” to Claire Messud’s words, anticipating many of the points I would make a little later.